At Motive Furniture, a husband-and-wife team has created a stunning showroom that mixes classic midcentury modern finds with other bold twentieth-century designs
Most teenagers living in small-town America entertain themselves with pulpy books, noisy video games, and the occasional stolen cigarette pilfered from their aunt’s purse. Not Katie Thibodeau. While other girls her age were trying on makeup and other forms of light rebellion, she found herself a rather unique hobby. She began to fix up furniture, pieces she found on the side of the road or scored at Salvation Army. Even back then, Thibodeau knew she had talent. At the age of 15, she sent off pictures of her work to Seventeen magazine. The publication did a two-page spread on the young DIY expert and her work. Soon after, Thibodeau began selling her refurbished vintage finds at stores in Portland, Bangor, and beyond.
These days, Thibodeau no longer has to drive all over Maine to showcase her wares. After years of studying art and design (she’s a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and Alfred University) and giving new life to old pieces, she finally found a permanent home for her collection. Motive Furniture, located on a busy stretch of Forest Avenue just off the peninsula, is a large showroom/ gallery where Thibodeau and her husband and business partner, Jason Thaxter, can style and sell elegantly sparse modern pieces alongside fine art and quirky accent items. They also have a cavernous space downstairs where they strip aged varnish from chairs, sand sideboards until they’re silky smooth, and condition cracked leather couches until they’re buttery soft.
Although it is tempting to call this a midcentury modern mecca, the focus of Motive Furniture is on twentieth-century design. “We have pieces that were designed in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and beyond,” Thibodeau explains. “We’re really concerned with our pieces being authentic, and we try to find everything in the best possible condition. What we do is restore pieces to the original integrity without eliminating most signs of age.” She seeks pieces that are functional, usable, sturdy, and visually interesting. She loves finding rare items, like a funky LC4 chaise lounge or a “directional” Paul Evans coffee table, and she researches each purchase extensively to understand its history and verify its origin. “There are so many fun pieces here, some of which you might only otherwise see in a museum,” she says as she weaves between a modern shelving unit and a teak end table. “But our items do turn over fast,” she cautioned, “so some of the things you see here today might not be here next week.”
Fortunately for buyers, Thibodeau and Thaxter are constantly on the lookout for new items (many of which they post on their Instagram feed). While some more traditional homeowners may shy away from the modern nature of their wares, Thibodeau points out that these pieces can coexist nicely with more traditional items, including Shaker-style chairs and other New England classics. Not only that, but the function-forward design of twentieth-century furniture may even have lessons to impart to contemporary customers. “I really believe that there is an intention in midcentury furniture that highlights the conversations and interactions between people in a way that our 2018 society can find really useful,” Thibodeau muses. “Conversation has always been an important part of design. It’s a good way to spend your time—and you should be doing that in a good, comfortable chair.”
A Crash Course in Styling Midcentury Modern Pieces
- One of the most iconic designs from this era is the Tulip dining table, created by Eero Saarinen. “It eliminates the footprint of traditional legs,” explains Thibodeau, “which makes it possible to use multiple visually pleasing seating options.” This piece is especially good for small kitchens. For a particularly striking look, pair it with high-backed dining chairs.
- A slat bench is a clean and highly functional piece that can work anywhere in the house, but Thibodeau likes to use it in entryways and bathrooms (it also makes a good coffee table). “The negative space on this piece allows it to ‘float’ visually,” she adds, which makes it a good addition to any room that feels cluttered yet still needs additional storage space.
- If you’re seeking a place to store your Roku or modem, Thibodeau likes using modern sideboards and credenzas as entertainment centers. “They can look high or low profile depending on the space,” she says. “They make a great addition to a dining or living room, and they provide clean, multipurpose storage.”
- Curious about how to use a swivel lounge chair in your Portland apartment? The good news is that these pieces were made for small spaces. “They eliminate the need to move chairs around while entertaining,” says Thibodeau. Grab matching pairs to create a cohesive look.